Sorting Through Belongings After Death: Working with Family

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Eleanor Haley

This week we’ve been talking about the daunting task of sorting through a loved one’s belongings after their death.  How to proceed (or whether to proceed) with this task is a very personal decision and once you start you may find it’s more emotionally difficult than you anticipated.  Objects big and small can trigger a wide range of emotions, from nostalgia and laughter to tears, longing, and frustration.

These emotions should be expected even when you approach the process at your own pace with supportive family and friends, but what happens when you also have to deal with variables beyond your control?  Eviction deadlines force you to get rid of things quickly, friends may push you to move on too soon, or family members might force you to split up effects before your ready.  All these factors, as well as many others, can complicate things exponentially.

We’d like to take a few minutes to focus on working with family members who have equal say in the disposition of belongings and property.  It would be shortsighted of us not to acknowledge that making such emotionally charged decisions with others can cause tension in even the most cohesive of families.  At the risk of sounding unhelpful, we will admit we can’t offer a solution. In situations like these, family dynamics are compounded by heightened emotions, personality types, and coping styles.  Every situation is unique, it would be impossible to boil all this down.

We can only recognize that tension, argument, and hurt feelings are normal in these situations, and suggest that catastrophic arguments and long term disagreements may be avoided by making concerted efforts to understand one another and work together.  More specifically we recommend discussing one another’s feelings about the process, making efforts to understand differing motivations, searching for compromise, and making a plan for how you will handle disagreement.

Of course there are circumstances when all the patience in the world won’t heal the wounds caused by deep seated misunderstanding, greed, inconsiderateness, or complete inability to compromise.  However, if harmony is desired by all or most of the participants, you at least have a start.

Let’s try and break things down a little further…

1.      Discussing feelings: 

Chances are most participants will have some concern, worry, or apprehension about the process.  Talking about these ahead of time will give participants an opportunity to be heard and to better understand each other.  The better you understand each other, the easier it will be to work together.

The range of possible emotions run the gamut, but a few examples might include…

I feel like we’re forgetting him

I can’t bear to go through her clothes

I don’t even know where to begin.  She had so much stuff. 

I’m worried about what I might find

I can’t bear to see any of it thrown away

I want things to be distributed fairly

I don’t want to keep any of it

When we were cleaning out my grandmother’s home years after her death my sister stayed inside the house while we all sorted through decades-worth of artifacts in the backyard.  We were surprised by this reaction and didn’t understand why she wouldn’t want to help or even claim any objects for herself.  Later I realized that no one had given her an opportunity to say ‘I’m not ready’ or ‘I don’t want to do this’ , we just told her she had to be there.   Had we known her true feelings toward the situation, we may have asked her which objects she’d like us to set aside for her to keep or look through later; instead we just assumed she didn’t want anything and any items special to her ended up being claimed, donated, or trashed.  Of course you won’t always be able to alleviate the worries and concerns of others, but discussing things ahead of time will at least provide context for behavior and let you know how you can make things easier on one another.

2.      Discussing motivations:

This process may become complicated if you are all working towards a different end.  Different motivations will cause people to behave in different ways.  Someone who feels pressure to have a space cleared out may push participants to make fast progress or to be cavalier about what they throw away.  Someone who is motivated to make sure objects are sold for the highest market value will take time looking up prices and may want to hire a professional to help.  Yet someone who wants to make sure each object goes to a good home may save everything and make careful decisions about where each object is donated.  Imagine these three people trying to work together.  Think of all the arguments that may arise – selling fast vs. waiting for the best price, trashing vs. taking time to donate, moving fast vs. pacing yourself.  Knowing motivations will help you to understand why these disagreements keep popping up.

It may also help you to avoid hurt feelings and misunderstanding.  Take the example of a father who wants to clean out his son’s room because he feels it’s too painful to see it exactly as his son left it.  The child’s mother, on the other hand, likes to be surrounded by her son’s things because it makes her feel close to him.  If the father starts cleaning out the room without explaining his reason for doing so, his actions could seem callous and be misinterpreted as trying to forget or move on.

3.      Finding compromise

If you are able to understand each other by discussing emotions and motivations, you will then have a better idea of the goal each person is working towards.

Finishing by the end of the weekend

Making sure we do right by our loved one

Selling anything of value

Holding on to reminders

Making it through the day in one piece

Avoiding arguments

When you know what people ultimately want, you can start searching for compromise that will help manage emotions and meet goals.  Maybe you compromise on which items can be sold vs. thrown away.  Perhaps you give the family one extra day to complete the task.  One person could volunteer to sort through objects that others think will be difficult to deal with.  Maybe you stop pushing someone to throw things away and offer suggestions on where they can to store them.  If both sides are willing to respect each other, chose their battles, and provide concessions, the potential for compromise is endless.

4.  Handling Disagreement:

When you do find yourself at an impasse, what will you do? I’m willing to bet most families don’t decide ahead of time.  There is no right or wrong answer and being judicious won’t necessarily avoid anger or hurt feelings.  But hey, it won’t hurt to try!  Here are a few options for handling disagreement….

Take a time out to let people cool off

Call it a day/give it more time

Discuss what your loved one would have wanted

Put it to a vote

Agree that one person (perhaps the official next of kin) will act as the final say

Discuss with a third party – counselor or lawyer

I hope something we’ve offered this week helps you to move forward with this task when the time comes.  This is a very complicated topic and I’m sure we will delve into it further in the future. In the mean time, if you’ve been down this road before and have a suggestion, we’d love to hear it.

Let’s be grief friends.

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10 Comments on "Sorting Through Belongings After Death: Working with Family"

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  1. Judessa  December 30, 2019 at 11:28 am Reply

    I was helping my nephew after my brothers sudden death age 61. He asked me if I wanted anything during the house clearance and I said no-it was too soon. Later I took as much as what I thought was left as my brother worked so hard I did not want to see it in the skip plus my other sibblings were not invited intot he house so took for them to look at. My nephew said anything he wanted would be in the conservatory so of course i took nothing from there, he is now not speaking to me not sure if I have taken something I shouldn’t or because he tried to keep the insurance policy and not reimburse me for paying for the funeral or when we ‘argued about him wanting a cremation to lower costs’ Either way i have been blocked on whatsapp -when don’t need any more pain and was always just looking after everyones best interest. Your thoughts

  2. Nadine  September 27, 2017 at 7:25 pm Reply

    It’s been 10 months and I can’t get rid of anything. His toothbrush in in the bathroom, his glasses still sit on the nightstand, shoes by the front door, and all his clothes in the closet. I don’t mind that they are still here, but I’m worried that this is not healthy/weird/avoidance of reality behavior. Ugh. Can I just say that I hate death?????

  3. Nadine  September 27, 2017 at 7:25 pm Reply

    It’s been 10 months and I can’t get rid of anything. His toothbrush in in the bathroom, his glasses still sit on the nightstand, shoes by the front door, and all his clothes in the closet. I don’t mind that they are still here, but I’m worried that this is not healthy/weird/avoidance of reality behavior. Ugh. Can I just say that I hate death?????

  4. Jennifer  August 11, 2015 at 10:11 pm Reply

    My dad died on a Monday and by Saturday my mom had donated or gotten rid of most of his clothes and belongings. My brothers and I thought it was her way of coping. Seventeen months later, I wish I had asked to have some of those items. it all happened so quickly even the speed in which she plowed though his closet, drawers, and books.

  5. kate  May 13, 2015 at 5:54 pm Reply

    My Mom passed away in February. I have lived with her and took care of her for years. My brothers all live out of town and one of them with his wife have been coming about every other week to clear out the house. I need help doing this but it is just heart wrenching to me. Everything reminds me of her and I miss her. I think for them it is just stuff to donate and the sooner the better. I don’t know how to cope with this

    • Litsa  May 17, 2015 at 10:39 am Reply

      Kate, this difference between family members can be so hard. Having some open discussion with your brother and his wife about how this is impacting you may be helpful. Sometimes people assume that others are experiencing grief in the same way they are, so understanding the difference can help us be more sensitive to each other.

  6. Connie Jo Russell  April 26, 2015 at 1:02 pm Reply

    What about human greed in all of this? You forgot to mention that “getting something of value” is another motivator in all of this. I didn’t think, at first, that it was a factor in my loved one’s aftermath, but discovered, unpleasantly so, that it can be a biggie, know what I mean?

    • Eleanor  April 27, 2015 at 1:37 pm Reply

      Yeah Connie,

      You are absolutely right. We do hear stories of people driven by greed after a death all the time. It’s sad, but very very true. I’m sorry you had this experience.


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